Foreign direct investment and support mechanisms boost industry in Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago’s economic output remains intertwined with energy revenue, despite the fact that the effects of the 2009 oil boom have long since declined. The country has emerged from its recessionary period following three consecutive quarters of growth, but, as Paula Gopee-Scoon, the minister of trade and industry, notes, between 2017 and 2019 there were difficulties experienced in every sector of the economy.

Nevertheless, industry and retail, once the focus of diversification efforts, represent important possible revenue generators in their own right. At a meeting of the Central Bank of T&T’s Monetary Policy Committee in March 2019, it was noted that the energy sector has slowed since the last quarter of 2018, while non-energy sectors have been generally steady, with marked improvements made in a number of subsectors. “T&T has worked to diversify away from the oil and gas sector,” Brian James, general manager of industry services at the MIC Institute of Technology (MIC-IT), told OBG. “The manufacturing sector has proven a main contributor to GDP and has had steady growth over the last two years.”

Over the short term T&T is expected to benefit from higher energy sector production stemming from new capacity at the Angelin field, which was brought on-line in February 2018. However, considering the mature acreage in the domestic basin, overall crude oil production likely remains on a downward trend. “The energy sector is still experiencing difficulties, which is having an effect on the economy as a whole,” Ramesh Ramdeen, CEO of the T&T Manufacturers’ Association (TTMA), told OBG. “Having said that, it has created an opportunity for the non-energy sector to step up to the plate and expand its operations.”

Slow Progress

Despite this optimism, indicators from the central bank show that activity across the country’s non-energy sectors slipped year-on-year (y-o-y) in the fourth quarter of 2018 following three quarters of generally flat growth. According to the central bank’s “Monetary Policy Report”, the manufacturing sector recorded a small downtick in the second quarter of 2019, at -0.6% y-o-y. In terms of manufacturing subsectors, fertiliser production fell by 5.6% in the first half of 2018, with urea declining by 48.8% over the same period – a result of scheduled maintenance at Nutrien’s urea plant. Meanwhile, liquefied natural gas (LNG), methanol and fertiliser output all expanded y-o-y.

Externally, the ongoing political uncertainty in neighbouring Venezuela may have short-term financial ramifications on T&T and its industries, depending on the scale of associated migration (see Country Profile chapter).

Strong Sectors

Largely owing to its comparative size, T&T is one of the larger exporters in the Caribbean region, with total exports for the year to September 2019 amounting to $24.7bn. In an effort to generate important foreign exchange, companies are also being pushed to increase exports. “To double exports, we will need to look at some of the larger players and get them to double their own exports – but we also need to focus on the smaller operators,” Ramdeen added.

Significantly, the government also hopes to double manufacturing output between 2020 and 2025. Within the manufacturing sector, food and beverage items are the major exports, among which alcoholic drinks and snacks stand out – particularly with niche goods such as Angostura bitters. Fruit juice and some carbonated drink exports are also strong. Furthermore, T&T is the main manufacturer of snack foods in the region.

Beyond the Basin

Keen to expand its trade flow, the Trinbagonian government is exploring extra-regional export markets. In March 2019 it was announced that Trinbagonian businesses would continue to benefit from the duty-free export of goods and preferential treatment in the UK after its exit from the EU through an Economic Partnership Agreement between the Caribbean Forum countries and the UK. Existing protections afforded to certain sectors will remain, including for agricultural goods, agri-processed materials, as well as light manufacturing and related services. As of the end of 2019 T&T’s main exports to the UK included methanol, LNG, aromatic bitters, iron and steel, rum, beer, cereals and shandy, which amounted to TT$560m ($82.7m) between January and October 2018.

The US is T&T’s largest trading partner, with which it maintains a positive trade balance of TT$3.74bn ($552.6m). In 2018 the country exported TT$16.3bn ($2.4bn) to the US and imported TT$12.5bn ($1.8bn). Within the US market, Trinbagonian goods are relatively concentrated in cities such as New York, Washington and Miami. The TTMA’s 2019 Trade and Investment Conference hosted over 300 exhibitors and 240 buyers – the highest in its 20-year history – highlighting competitive advantages for manufacturers such as the low cost of electricity, international ports, and relative ease of access to regional and international markets.

New Destinations

The main export market for T&T is the CARICOM area; however, diversification efforts emphasise Central America and other Latin American countries. Trade agreements have been signed between T&T and El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama, while the government is currently in talks with Chile. CARICOM also has free trade agreements with Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, CARICOM has an economic partnership agreement with the EU and is prioritising expanding the reach of Trinbagonian exports within Europe. In May 2019 Gopee-Scoon stated that she was committed to promoting manufacturers through ongoing trade missions to Colombia, Canada and Cuba.

Cuban Deals

The Cuban market represents 11m people and a further 3m tourists annually. Furthermore, of the goods exported to Cuba from within the Caribbean, some 80% originate in T&T, with exports recorded at $56m in 2018. Between January 2018 and May 2019, 20 non-energy and two energy companies exported from T&T to Cuba. Symbolic of this close relationship, in March 2019 paint manufacturer ANSA Coatings shipped $550,000 worth of goods to Cuba, its newest export market, becoming the latest company to enter the country. Supported by national export facilitation company ExporTT’s trade facilitation office in Cuba, Trinbagonian companies in the ICT, surveying, recycling and energy, petroleum and gas, construction, design, transport and shipping, and printing and packaging sectors are now on the verge of entering the Cuban market.

In mid-June 2019 some 23 Trinbagonian companies, representing a range of sectors, took part in a delegation to the 16th Expo Caribe event in Santiago de Cuba. A further 23 are registered and 13 others are in the final stages of registration. According to Gopee-Scoon, strengthening market presence in Cuba would create jobs, increase exports and generate much-needed foreign exchange. Despite difficulties related to government relations and bureaucracy, trade relations with Cuba are expected to increase (see Regional Relations chapter).

Foreign Investment

Further afield, significant foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows for the industrial and infrastructure sectors have been sourced from China. A $500m dry-dock and $102m industrial park in La Brea follow significant investments in the telecommunications sector, hundreds of police motorcycles and purchases of buses from China. The dry-dock project was approved in order to provide jobs for the thousands who lost employment following the dissolution of state energy company Petrotrin in November 2018. As such, the government enlisted engineering contractor, and subsidiary of China Communications Construction Company, China Harbour Engineering to build the facility in La Brea, part of the area affected by the closure in the area of San Fernando. According to Franklin Khan, minister of energy, construction on the La Brea dry-dock facility could create 3500 direct and 5700 indirect jobs in the south-western peninsula.

In the energy sector, China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, has invested $850m in a 10% stake in Atlantic LNG. In May 2018 T&T became one of the first nations in the Caribbean to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU). With regard to industrial infrastructure financed by China’s Export-Import Bank, Chinese firm Beijing Construction and Engineering Group (BCEG) will build the Phoenix Park Industrial Estate at nearby Point Lisas. It has suggested that the park could attract 10 major China-based companies to establish operations at the site, interesting up to 60 Chinese firms in the long term and generating as many as 4500 jobs.

Another MoU was signed between BCEG and the Evolving Tecknologies and Enterprise Development (eTeck). However, this has resulted in the accumulation of significant public debt with China. According to Colm Imbert, minister of finance, as of the end of 2019 T&T owed China TT$2.2bn ($325m). The debt is in the form of loans and financing from January 2018, and includes construction of the National Academy for the Performing Arts and the Southern Academy for the Performing Arts.

Lastly, in a move to strengthen the country’s relationship with China, T&T’s government and Caribbean Airlines have signed a cooperation agreement with Hainan Airlines which will improve accessibility for Chinese officials, businesspeople and tourists.

Film Potential

As part of its focus on growing foreign investment, the Trinbagonian government is supporting the further development of film animation, with its sights set on a share of the $259bn industry. As part of the first phase of a national strategy, in February 2019 local animators attended the annual Kidscreen Animation Summit in Miami, supported by the Ministry of Trade and Energy, as well as ExporTT and FilmTT, a government agency established to bolster growth in the industry. A plan put in place by Animae Caribe is similarly seeking to increase T&T’s share in the global animation market by creating animated content for global distribution.

Furthermore, the Game and Music Technology Outsourcing Hub at the University of T&T will position the country as a viable source for outsourced animation work from international animation production companies and local producers. The drive is already beginning to bear fruit, with T&T earning approximately $2.5m from eight productions facilitated by FilmTT in the first quarter of FY 2018/19.

Meanwhile, a production guide, directory and locations database have been created to facilitate market entry for foreign producers. FilmTT has prioritised developing infrastructure and capacity, increasing audiences and demand for local content, as well as safeguarding intellectual property, while attempting to promote T&T as the region’s premier production destination. Although the islands have traditionally focused on local films, they are now targeting international productions with up to a 35% cash rebate on qualified local expenditure, as well as an additional 20% cash rebate for local labour costs. The programme operates a tiered cash-back system for expenses, ranging from 12.5% to 35%.

The government has stated that it will continue to invest in the local film industry as a priority, with the intention of building a globally competitive business. One successful initiative in this regard is the Film Production Expenditure Rebate Programme, introduced in 2006, which has seen 19 films completed in the country, with a spend of over TT$95m ($14m).

Research & Development

Following an influx of FDI around the time of the country’s oil boom, the Metals Industries Company was created in 1974 in partnership with the UN Development Programme and local private institutions to develop expertise in the manufacturing sector to support oil and gas operations. In 2014 it was rebranded as MIC-IT, a public-private technical training institute in which the government holds a 46% share. It sees between 2000 and 4000 craftspeople graduate each year who are qualified in many technical areas. The institute operates its own commercial factory that makes generic plastic products for sale and offers contract manufacturing services to clients. It also supports manufacturing activity with the design and production of tools, dies and moulds. MIC-IT is one of the leading providers of innovative engineering solutions for the region, and it holds specialised training partnerships with a number of foreign institutions, including the Chamber of Crafts and Trades in Germany and the American Welding Society.

Areas of Improvement

In addition to focusing on foreign investment and the export market, a number of facets of the industrial scene require overhauling or streamlining in order to maximise the sector’s profitability. T&T was ranked 105th globally in 2019 in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index, down from 102nd place in 2018. A number of stakeholders have identified this as a key area to address. Logistics and infrastructure are competitive, and shipping between T&T, the US and Europe is relatively straightforward. However, inter-island shipping is irregular and often runs just twice a week to smaller Caribbean nations. Supply chain management is a challenge for many manufacturers as most of the goods that they use must be imported. With larger multinationals operating in the region, T&T has the opportunity to use its relative size and infrastructure development to its advantage. Larger suppliers are increasingly unwilling to deal with the 34 small Caribbean islands individually, prompting some distributors in T&T to explore the possibility of becoming regional rather than just local.

Consumers are increasingly turning to the big global operators, and countries trading with the region want to look at the Caribbean as one common market. Smaller firms, however, could benefit from additional public support in a competitive manufacturing landscape. “I would like to see more general support for the manufacturing sector from the government and an incubation system for new entrepreneurs to help their businesses develop and grow. There is a lack of technical and managerial support to help small businesses develop into export-oriented organisations, and the MIC-IT incubation system can provide that needed technical support,” James told OBG. This will be crucial if the government is to meet its export targets for 2020-25.

Another issue is the shortage of foreign exchange, which has forced banks to limit the amount of US dollars an individual can acquire. The retail and distribution sector, along with credit cards, absorbed the majority of foreign currency sales, according to the central bank’s “Monetary Policy Report”. Foreign currency reserves, meanwhile, have continued to decline, falling from a peak of approximately $11.5bn to approximately $7bn in mid-2019.

Outlook

Against the background of an uncertain international environment and based on developments in the energy sector, T&T’s central bank anticipates that economic activity in the country will expand moderately in 2020, driven in part by industry. The positive outlook for the non-energy sector is linked to an anticipated fiscal stimulus in the second half of FY 2019/20, including road and other infrastructure projects. The future for industry in T&T is therefore relatively bright despite a number of challenges.

“The best model we have looked at is the Jamaican model, where the government recognises its role as an enabler for the private sector,” Gabriel Faria, CEO of the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce (TTCC), told OBG. “We would like to see the government focus on certain core areas, creating an enabling environment and an efficient, productive public sector that improves the ease of doing business while letting the private sector focus on running the commercial enterprise.” While some stakeholders have been critical of the government’s initiatives to transform the economy, Faria stresses that the TTCC does not expect a significant change in strategy in 2020. “Due to present economic circumstances, the focus is on maintaining what we have rather than investing in growth and developing new manufacturing facilities,” he said.

As part of its diversification agenda, the government’s intention remains to double non-oil exports between 2020 and 2025. Ramdeen believes that the country is moving in the right direction in this regard. “We are optimistic that the sector will be able to hold its own and increase its exports and production over the next five years,” he told OBG.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2020

Industry & Retail chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2020

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